Citing media coverage, man charged with killing rapper Young Dolph seeks non-Memphis jury
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A man charged with killing Young Dolph cannot get a fair trial in Memphis due to the intense media attention and “public visceral outrage” over the slaying of the beloved rapper in his hometown, a defense lawyer said Friday.
Justin Johnson’s attorney asked a judge to bring in a jury from outside of Shelby County for the trial of Johnson and Cornelius Smith Jr. Both men have been charged with first-degree murder in the daytime ambush of Young Dolph, who was buying cookies at a Memphis bakery when he was gunned down in November 2021.
Johnson’s lawyer, Luke Evans, told Judge Jennifer J. Mitchell that the killing has received relentless attention from news outlets and on social media, where some commenters have called for Johnson to be lynched or killed in prison in an attempt to seek vengeance, not justice.
It would be dangerous for the trial’s integrity if a jury from the Memphis area were to be seated and the court should not “play chicken” with the defendant’s rights, Evans said.
“The victim in the case is beloved here,” Evans said, adding later that a “jury from somewhere else lacks that personal connection to the crime.”
Johnson and Smith have pleaded not guilty in the killing of Young Dolph, whose real name was Adolph Thornton Jr. The rapper, producer and independent music label owner was gunned down while he was visiting his hometown to see a sick relative and hand out Thanksgiving turkeys.
Known for his depictions of tough street life and his independent approach to the music business, Young Dolph was admired for charitable works in Memphis. Along with the Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, he donated thousands of dollars to high schools and paid rent and covered funeral costs for people in the Castalia Heights neighborhood where he was raised. A neighborhood street was named after Young Dolph after his death.
Prosecutor Paul Hagerman noted that the killing of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright — another respected Memphis figure — also received heavy media attention, but the court was able to find impartial jurors for his 2022 trial. A man was found guilty of the 2010 slaying of Wright.
“You’re always surprised in cases like this how many people don’t watch the news at all,” said Hagerman, the prosecutor in the Wright case.
Hagerman recommended that questionnaires be sent to a potential jury pool of about 150 to 200 people to gauge the effect of news coverage and social media commentary. Once that pool is winnowed down, the judge would question the remaining members of the jury pool about the media coverage.
Judge Mitchell set a hearing for Feb. 9 to disclose her ruling on the change of venue motion. She also reset the trial from March 11 to June 3.
Two other men were charged in the killing, which shocked Memphis and the entertainment world.
Hernandez Govan has pleaded not guilty to organizing the killing. A trial date has not been set for him. Jermarcus Johnson pleaded guilty in June to three counts of serving as an accessory after the killing by helping Smith and Justin Johnson, his half brother.
Jermarcus Johnson acknowledged helping the two shooting suspects communicate by cellphone while they were on the run from authorities and helping one of them communicate with his probation officer.
Mitchell is the second judge to preside over the case. Judge Lee Coffee removed himself in October after he was ordered to do so by a Tennessee appeals court, which questioned whether he could be impartial after he failed to inform Justin Johnson’s lawyer about an order limiting Johnson’s ability to communicate with people outside the jail.
Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.